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Safer roads: Intelligent cars close to delivering on their promise

The assertion that vehicle tech has the power to eliminate more than 90 per cent of vehicular deaths in the United States alone is a compelling argument.

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 February, 2017, 9:24am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 February, 2017, 9:24am

Most teenagers can’t wait to reach legal driving age. Many elderly are reluctant to give up their licenses, even when their reflexes are clearly slower.

Families are right to worry about their loved ones in both demographics being in charge at the wheel: they’re the highest risk age groups for road accident trauma as most crashes involve drivers aged 75+, followed by youths in the 18 to 21 age bracket.

But imagine keeping all those who want to be there on the road, and safely – including people with disabilities. That’s the future promised by artificially intelligent (AI) cars - and it’s not far away.

Advancement in assisted driving is one of the big tech stories of 2017. If you count yourself among the majority who told a 2016 survey that they either wouldn’t want, or didn’t trust a robot in charge of their car, you might think again when you see what these babies can do.

First and foremost is the road safety message: the assertion that vehicle tech has the power to eliminate more than 90 per cent of vehicular deaths in the United States alone is a compelling argument. The ultimate goal of AI car tech is to achieve zero fatalities on the road, but how?

Systems such as Nissan’s Seamless Autonomous Mobility (Sam) are designed to reduce human error – a significant cause of road accidents. Developed from Nasa technology, Sam provides in-vehicle AI with human support to help autonomous vehicles make decisions in unpredictable situations. “This technology will enable millions of driverless cars to co-exist with human drivers in an accelerated timeline,” says Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn. 

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Many people don’t want to give up driving completely – instead, they want options to decide when to drive, and when to let the car take over, Ghosn told delegates to CES 2017, in Las Vegas in January. He expects Nissan to have 10 models with autonomous drive functionality on the market by 2020.

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Promoting zero emissions as another goal, Ghosn says a new version of LEAF, Nissan’s 100 per cent electric car, will be coming in the near future, equipped with ProPILOT technology, enabling autonomous drive functionality for single-lane highway driving. 

American tech company Nvidia is also pursuing the safety angle with its in-car computer, called the AI Co-Pilot.  CEO Huang Jen-hsun says it is smart enough to “pay attention to you, too [as well as the road], not just peering ahead and sideways”. “It will note if you’re sluggish or sleepy, or maybe suffering from road rage.” 

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A human is still in the driver’s seat, but the AI warns them if there are hazards ahead, how far and where they are.  “[The technology] will tell you where it can drive, and where it’s less confident and you’d best assume control yourself [for example, if there are too many pedestrians],” Huang says. Nvidia has partnered with Audi to build its next generation of AI cars, expected on the road by 2020. 

Panasonic, a brand more associated with cameras than cars, is pitching the “travel experience” to be had while being driven – instead of driving – as offered by its Future Car 2025. The company is working with Qualcomm Technologies and Google on an android-based, next generation in-car infotainment system that gives everyone in the car their own 4K tablet to play with. Since nobody needs to keep their eye on the road, the tablets are grouped on a central table, faced by seats which swivel into a lounge-suite configuration. 

The platform has e-commerce capabilities for convenient in-vehicle purchases. “So a meal order could be verbally placed through the infotainment system, paid for by the car, and timed for more precise pick-up while still driving to the restaurant,” says Panasonic Automotive president Tom Gebhardt. The system communicates with your smart home functionality so everything is geared there for your arrival. The company is dealing with major car manufacturers with a view to implementing its technology. 

Ford is also playing on the driver experience, introducing Alexa integration into its new cars. “Customers will be able to start their vehicles from home, and manage smart home features while on the road – making life easier,” says Don Butler, executive director, Ford Connected Vehicle and Services.

Ford is rolling out Alexa integration in two phases. The first, available from February, connects with smart home devices such as Amazon Echo, Echo Dot and Amazon Tap. The second, expected later this year, “allows you to tap into a broad set of Alexa skills using your voice while driving – helping you keep your eyes on the road and hands on the wheel.”

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To demonstrate how far vehicle tech has come, Hyundai recently sent two research cars onto the streets of Las Vegas. Both – based on an EV and hybrid version of the company’s new Ioniq – safely navigated a busy intersection, avoiding pedestrians. The company says it is refining its self-driving technologies with the goal of using less computing power, “resulting in a low-cost platform that the typical consumer can afford”.